This coming weekend, I was supposed to speak at a Young Israel of the most exotic island I’ve ever been invited to speak at: Staten Island. Way back in February, BC — Before COVID — the weekend of May 2nd sounded very far away, but also very perfect: good weather, after Pesach, end of the semester… I noticed the פרשה that week would be a double one — אחרי מות, קדושים — and was thinking of a number of different directions I could take in connection with the parsha: the words, the duality, the meaning, the message.
And then the world changed. And in moments in between adjusting to an absolutely unreal reality, and endless death reports, and days so crippling it is the closest we as a society have collectively experienced trauma since… since when?… I remembered: אחרי מות: After Death. קדושים: Holiness.
Who could have fathomed back in February what meaning those words would take on now. אחרי מות, after death, קדושים תהיו, holy you shall be.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of “after” and not just with COVID. This past December, after a string of anti-Semitic incidents over Chanukah, our community as a whole reeled as a man walked into a Rabbi’s home and stabbed whomever he could. Less than hours later, our community gathered, and gave, and supported, and helped. When we heard, nine summers ago, of a young boy named Leiby who’d gone missing without a trace, we gathered again, and we prayed, and we searched. When one of us has cancer. When one of us dies. When there’s an accident. A fire. An illness. A trauma. When we are hit, we rally together, and of course, we always bring food.
קדושים תהיו: we define holiness.
What happens אחרי מות, after the fact? When the children and spouses and loved ones and families are grappling with PTSD and all the physiological, psychological, economic, and generational effects that trauma brings. What happens after, when the dust settles, smoke clears and the helpers have all gone home. What happens in those quiet moments of aloneness when the tragedy is already over?
אחרי מות ,קדושים תהיו: After the crisis, you shall be holy.
For it is especially then when our holiness is needed.
What can be said that hasn’t been said. We’ve watched all of the news. Heard all of the opinions. Read the good, the bad, the inspiration, the stories. With one sudden disease, our collective realities have been altered forever, even if we are healthy, even if we are safe. And still, the קדושה is so thick we can feel it. The other day, a traffic agent waited for me to return to my car (groceries, yes, of course, with a mask and gloves), and told me: “We were waiting to see you return so you don’t get a ticket. If you see other ticket agents, tell them you are just running in for a minute so you don’t get ticketed. People need their money now!” If I could only touch my face, I’d be rubbing my eyes in utter disbelief. If I was sitting down, I’d have fallen off my chair.
We are sensitive now in ways we’ve never been. We ask how are you? and genuinely mean it. We say I’m not okay and nobody is judging. Whoever we are, whatever we do, we understand, perhaps for the first time, what each other are experiencing. There is no כבוד, no ego. We are donating, giving, cooking, delivering, sending, mailing, calling, emailing, Zooming, texting, checking, caring. They say the brightest of lights comes from the darkest of places, and indeed, the amounts of קדושה to come from this crisis has been a testament to how dark this has been — and how much light we carry.
If, after all of this — the unimaginably devastating impact this has had on our families and ourselves and our mental health and physical health and our finances and the world — if after all of this you believe that there has to be a lesson — what if this was it? What if we all came out of this and continued to ask how are you? and genuinely mean it. What if some of us continued to say I’m really not okay and nobody judged? Two months ago, can you imagine telling people honestly how sad/depressed/anxious you are feeling and, without exception, everyone gets it? Can we possibly stay this changed?
When this is over and the world needs קדושה, when we look around at the damage around us, pick up the pieces and try and heal, let’s remember this, all of it. If nothing else, let’s take from this and continue to keep: our goodness, our humanity, our holiness. אחרי מות ,קדושים תהיו.